Can Obama Win on Likability?

Obama shaking hands on bus tour - Jason Reed : Reuters - banner.jpg

Americans began to view Bush as personally unfavorable at about the same time. A July 2005 Pew survey showed 51 percent of Americans had a favorable impression of the president. By late October, that number had sunk to 46 percent, then stayed in the high 30s for most of the rest of his term. Voters had had enough; Bush's job-approval rating led the way down, and once the favorable ratings followed, there was no way to recover politically.

A president's job approval ratings are far more dynamic than his personal favorable ratings, University of Wisconsin political scientist Charles Franklin said. That seems to suggest that personal feelings about an incumbent erode much more slowly than feelings about their job performance -- and are that much harder to rebuild. Bush's high favorable ratings after September 11th, and his subsequent lows after Hurricane Katrina, were slower to develop than his job approval zeniths and nadirs.

Obama's job-approval rating has followed the same track during his first term as Bush's did during the second term. His approval rating has hit the 50 percent mark in Pew surveys just four times since December 2009--and three of those times came within a month after Obama ordered the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Similarly, Obama's approval rating last hit the 50 percent mark in Gallup's daily tracking poll on June 6; about 10 weeks later, fewer than 40 percent of Americans view Obama favorably, Gallup has found.

For the moment, Obama's personal-favorability ratings have not followed the same downward trajectory. The most recent ratings from Gallup show 52 percent of Americans viewed Obama favorably in late April. Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, a Democratic polling firm that conducts research for Democracy Corps, asks the question much differently, but an early August study pegs Obama's favorability, rated as a temperature measure, as much warmer than either Republicans or Democrats.

"The president's job approval is dropping a good deal, whereas his personal ratings are not to anywhere near that extent," said Peter Brown, a pollster at Quinnipiac University. "If he were to become personally unpopular to the degree his policies are unpopular, he would have a very difficult time getting reelected. And it's hard to see how his personal numbers would rise without his job approval rising."

Obama's high personal-favorability ratings show swing voters are rooting for him to succeed, while his low job-performance rating demonstrates they don't like where he's going so far. If Obama's favorability ratings start sinking to match his approval numbers, it may be a sign that those critical independent voters have washed their hands of his presidency.

Image credit: Jason Reed/Reuters

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